I have read another book by Andrew Pettegree — Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion — which I really enjoyed, and I enjoyed this one even more. Brand Luther is well-researched, scholarly, detailed . . . and an easy read.
Think of it as a mash-up of history and biography written from the vantage of the early German printing industry. The carrier of the Reformation was books, and how that came to be is the story that this book tells.
It is commonly thought that the invention of printing resulted in the Reformation, and there is something to that. But at the same time, a few steps are left out. After the invention of printing in the first half of the fifteenth century, there was a good seventy years of fairly anemic publishing before the Reformation exploded. During that seventy years, the printing industry managed to survive printing scholarly works in Latin for scholars to read in Latin.
What Pettegree shows is that in a very real way, the Reformation “made” publishing. Luther was the first celebrity author, and he wrote in German, and he was interesting, and his output was prodigious. Many know about the high-talent that surrounded Luther on the theological front — the name Melanchthon comes to mind — but Pettegree shows how greatly Luther was aided competence in other areas. There was the artistic contributions of Cranach, and the publishing expertise of Lotter, and the political help provided by the Protestant princes.
Many know that Luther was afflicted by those who would trumpet their own radical vision and version of what Luther was supposed to be up to. There was Karlstadt, a well-meaning friend who outran his own headlights. There were the Zwickau “prophets” — of whom Luther once said that he did not care if they had swallowed the Holy Ghost, feathers and all. There was the extremism that broke out in the Peasants Revolt. All of these things did damage to the cause of reformation.
But Luther was also afflicted by publishing incompetence. The first printing shop that existed in Wittenberg was run by a man who was in well over his head. Luther had high aesthetic standards, and would spend time in the printing shops walking the productions through. Luther paid attention to his brand.
And he did it without becoming a celebrity sophist. When modern Christians talk about “brand,” or “platform,” or “marketing strategies,” it is easy for those who want to stand for a “pure gospel” to dismiss all such considerations as worldly and beneath contempt. The reason it is easy to do is because these considerations are so frequently detached from any care about what the Bible actually teaches. The truth and public relations are relegated to two different departments, and the end result is “brand sophistry.”
This is a real problem for us, now as much as ever. Modern pastors and Christian leaders should want to know the truth first. The exegesis should be done first. We should know what God has revealed first. Then, having established that, we should throw ourselves into the pursuit of excellence as we seek to advance the truth by every lawful means. For anyone who cares about this sort of thing, the book Brand Luther is a must. It is an enjoyable read, and rich with opportunities for thoughtful application.